(EnergyAsia, March 3 2011, Thursday) — A coalition of US environmental groups said several coal-ash dumpsites in Indiana and Virginia could potentially jeopardise human life and pose a serious threat to the environment.

The Environmental Integrity Project (EIP), Earthjustice, and the Hoosier Environmental Council issued this warning a few days after the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had released plans for 15 electric utilities to improve the integrity of coal-ash impoundment sites.

The coalition warned that major problems have been detected at a coal-ash impoundment pond at Dominion Energy’s Chesapeake Energy Center in Chesapeake, Virginia which could pollute the Elizabeth River flowing directly into the Chesapeake Bay. In Indiana, the groups highlighted major concerns at two dozen coal ash-ponds at three Indianapolis Power & Light plants (in Indianapolis, Martinsville and Petersburg) and one Northern Indiana Public Service Co. site in Wheatfield.

The coalition described the Indiana situation as “particularly serious” because the state government had failed to impose safeguards like regular inspections, emergency response plans, and design of dams by professional engineers.

Indiana generates over 9.5 million tons of coal ash annually and ranks third in the country for ash generation and first in the number of coal ash ponds, leading the country with 53 ponds at 16 plants.

The coalition noted that in April and May 2010, EPA had conducted inspections of coal ash ponds at 20 power plants nationwide including ponds at six Indiana coal-fired power plants.  The inspectors gave a “poor” rating to 35 ponds, and 24 of the “poor” rated ponds (two-thirds of the total) were found at four Indiana power plants.

“These 24 ponds in Indiana include six high hazard dams, 15 significant hazard dams and three low hazard dams,” said the coalition.
The coalition said Dominion Energy Chesapeake Energy Center plant’s bottom ash and sedimentation pond is ranked a “significant” potential hazard, because a failure would release toxic coal ash to the Elizabeth River, which would flow into Chesapeake Bay.

Inspectors rated the condition of the pond “poor.” The pond is contained by an earthen dam and is unlined, holding fly ash, bottom ash and leachate contaminated with arsenic from the plant’s onsite dry ash landfill.  “Urgent” repairs were identified as being needed to address slope failures at the pond.

The coalition said that Dominion Energy is under no formal order from EPA or Virginia State to complete the necessary investigations, analyses or repairs. The same plant was the source of the 1.5 million tons of ash used to create Battlefield Golf Course, which is now an EPA damage case, where ash has contaminated groundwater with heavy metals.

The issue of arsenic contamination of groundwater has festered for almost a decade at the plant’s 22-acre dry ash landfill. The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) has measured arsenic at one monitoring well as 30 times higher than the safe standard; at another, more than 11 times higher.

Tim Maloney, senior policy director at Hoosier Environmental Council, said:

“For decades we’ve seen damage to Indiana’s drinking water and rivers and streams from the state’s poorly regulated ash ponds. We now learn that utilities have neglected to maintain the dams to protect public safety and health. It is clear that the State of Indiana has dropped the ball, and EPA must step in with national standards to prevent a disaster.”

Jeff Stant, director of Coal Combustion Waste Initiative for  Environmental Integrity Project and who is based in Indiana, said:

“Even after two 30-million gallon spills of ash slurry into the White River from IPL’s Eagle Valley Station ponds in 2007 and 2008 were followed by the catastrophic collapse of the ash pond dike at TVA’s Kingston Plant, EPA finds that leaks and sagging ground in these Indiana ash pond dams are not being adequately maintained and that the state is doing nothing to inspect any of them.

“Hoosiers should be able to expect much more from their power providers and state regulators. Here’s just one more reason why a national regulation of these waste ponds is needed by EPA.”

Lisa Evans, senior administrative counsel at Earthjustice, said:

“Most of the dams rated “poor” will likely take human life or cause substantial economic and environmental damage if they fail. It is the responsibility of the utility operating the ponds to ensure a break never occurs. But when polluters fail to protect public safety, it is the responsibility of the regulators to step in. It appears that all have failed the citizens of Indiana and Virginia.”